By: Kushal Chatterjee
Arguably the greatest soccer player of all time, Lionel Messi, fresh off a World Cup win with Argentina, decided to take his talents to Major League Soccer (MLS) and join David Beckham’s Inter Miami CF in the summer of 2023. The now eight-time Ballon d’Or winner and one of the most distinguished athletes worldwide decided to spend his twilight years in South Beach, a decision that should have staggering effects on the world of American soccer, both on and off the pitch. Lionel Messi’s debut with Inter Miami was nothing short of the spectacle imagined by soccer fans worldwide; in the presence of notable celebrities like LeBron James, Kim Kardashian, and Serena Williams, Messi scored a game-winning free kick in the dying minutes of second half stoppage time to lift Inter Miami over Cruz Azul in Leagues Cup play. Heralding a watershed era of American soccer defined by worldwide attention and the possibility of cementing MLS as a destination for world-class talent, Messi’s signing with Miami promised excitement unlike any other. With a 2023 base salary of $12 million and a net guaranteed compensation of over $20 million annually in his contract, it is obvious that Messi’s acquisition cost Inter Miami an arm and a leg. The addition of Messi immediately pushed Miami to the top of MLS club payroll, a league record of approximately $39 million, more than half of which is in the hands of Messi himself. This certainly begs an important question, while it may seem outlandish: Is Lionel Messi even worth it? To answer this question, join me in a deep dive into Messi-related statistics, both on the pitch and off it.
Messi’s Offensive Prowess
We’ll start our journey by analyzing Messi’s impact on Inter Miami by looking at various important offensive statistics for the club in this MLS season. All of the data used for Inter Miami on-field analysis was acquired from FBref, a comprehensive soccer statistics website.
GCA90 is an advanced soccer analysis metric that represents the Goal-Creating Actions per 90 Minutes, by an individual player. Rather than an assist, which often does not encompass the full picture of the buildup to a goal in soccer, the GCA metric is more general and is similar to a hockey assist. A Goal-Creating Action tracks the two offensive/attacking actions that directly lead to a goal. Some examples of such actions include live ball passes, dead ball passes, defensive tackles, and drawn fouls. The graph shows the GCA per 90 minutes statistic for all midfielders and forwards who played starting minutes for Inter Miami in the 2023 MLS season. Lionel Messi’s GCA90 value is 0.97, which means that Messi approximately contributes one action that creates an Inter Miami goal every game. This is an unprecedented level of offensive consistency from an attacking player, as the average of all the other Inter Miami midfielders and forwards GCA90 statistics in the 2023 season was 0.33. Therefore, in this single statistic, Messi proves to be approximately 3x as effective as the average starting player that Inter Miami would roster at his position.
Moreover, a Shapiro-Wilk test was conducted within the R programming environment on the Goal-Creating Actions per 90 minutes dataset to test it for normality. The Shapiro-Wilk Test demonstrates that the GCA90 data fit onto a normal distribution with high probability, allowing us to perform further statistical analysis based on this presumption of normality. For the GCA90 metric, Messi’s Z-score was approximately 2.41, which means that his value for this metric was more than two standard deviations above the mean. Moreover, using a Z-score table, which was simulated using the pnorm function in R, the probability of an Inter Miami midfielder or forward having Messi’s GCA90 contribution, or higher, is 0.008, which is less than 1%. Through this analysis of Messi’s on-field contribution to the goal scoring prowess of Inter Miami as a team, it seems that the chances of striking Messi’s impact are less than one in a hundred. This shows that Messi has radicalized the Inter Miami team’s offense, much beyond the capability of the other players at his position, a true testament to his deservedness for a steep salary.
The next offensive metric that should be analyzed is the Expected Goals statistic (xG). xG is a statistic that calculates the likelihood of a shot being scored based on empirical soccer data from the past. Each shot is analyzed using Opta’s historical database of more than one million shots in order to generate a number from 0 to 1. 0 represents that it is impossible to score from that specific chance, whereas 1 means that the player is expected to score from that chance without fail. Specifically, for a more equitable analysis, we will consider Non-Penalty Expected Goals, or npxG, because it standardizes the results and removes the inherent inflation towards the team’s penalty kick taker(s). Moreover, just like with GCA90, this will be analyzed on a per 90 minute scale, so that each player is evaluated fairly for the number of playing minutes they receive. Therefore, the next statistic that will be evaluated is Non-Penalty Expected Goals Per 90 Minutes, or npXG90.
Once again, it becomes apparent from the chart that Lionel Messi is a clear outlier in his team’s npxG statistics. Most Inter Miami attacking players have a npxG value between 0.0 and 0.2, which represents that they are expected to score a non-penalty goal once in every five to ten games. Meanwhile, Messi’s npxG value is 0.81, which means that he is expected to score almost every game, a rate of approximately 4 goals for every five games that he plays. This offensive statistic serves to corroborate our findings previously, namely that Messi’s offensive consistency is a phenomenon completely unlike the rest of Inter Miami’s players. It is clear that “La Pulga” is indeed living up to his hype on the field.
Overall Team Success?
While it is obvious that Messi’s signing surged Inter Miami’s success, notably through their undefeated run and eventual trophy in the summer Leagues Cup, it is important to analyze Messi’s take-home effect on his team overall, rather than only individual statistics. While Messi won the Leagues Cup 2023 Top Scorer and Best Player Awards, some of his team’s immediate honeymoon success can also be attributed to the various other signings made in Inter Miami’s summer transfer window, including Messi’s former Barcelona teammates, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets.
For a more holistic look at the effects of Lionel Messi on the team performance of Inter Miami, we can now turn our attention to our final on-field metric of analysis, the +/-90. This statistic subtracts the number of goals that the team concedes from the number of goals that the team scores during the time that an individual player is on the field. Therefore, a negative value for this statistic means that for the time that an individual player is on the pitch, the team has conceded more goals than they have scored in the 2023 season; on the other hand, a positive value represents more scoring than conceding goals. Like all of the other on-field statistics, this is normed for a consistent time scale, per 90 minutes. As seen, most Inter Miami players have a negative value for this statistic, showing the team’s overall inability to score and defend efficiently in order to maintain net positive differentials. However, there are three Inter Miami players who demonstrate a considerably beneficial impact on the overall team success, both offensively and defensively, with their presence on the pitch. To no surprise, one of these players is Lionel Messi. What may be shocking is for this overall team statistic, Messi is actually not Inter Miami’s leader; it is rather Jordi Alba, which suggests that Messi may not have been as instrumental to Inter Miami’s overall team success as previously considered. There are certain limitations to this statistic in determining Messi’s utility, the most obvious one being that Messi plays less of a role defensively on the team and will not demonstrate much of an influence on how many goals the Inter Miami goalkeeping and defense concede. However, it does seem interesting that the other two players with a significantly positive +-90 statistic are both defenders. Moreover, all three of these players -- Messi, Jordi Alba, and Tomas Aviles -- were summer window signings by Inter Miami, which further suggests the gravity of Messi’s signing and the high caliber of the other players lured to join Inter Miami with him. Not only have Messi’s on-field contributions been the cornerstone of his team’s success, but his ability to dictate the flow of the game has translated into an unprecedented reshaping of the very essence of the team.
Overall, the resounding takeaway from this section of on-field statistical analysis is that not only is Messi highly efficient and an overwhelming leader in Inter Miami’s individual offensive metrics, but he is also demonstrably instrumental to his team’s overall success. However, two other noteworthy players on Inter Miami’s squad help the team at a seemingly similar, if not higher, rate compared to Messi; it is no coincidence that these are players who followed Messi to Inter Miami in the summer of 2023. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Messi (and Co.) revolutionized the world of Inter Miami soccer in the 305; in just two months after Lionel Messi’s Miami debut, the club won first place in Leagues Cup and was runners-up in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup - immediate success!
The Little Boy from Rosario Known Worldwide - Messi Off the Field
Messi’s arrival in Miami sparked a rapid increase in American soccer fan following, merchandise, ticket, and TV subscription sales; the Messi effect extends well beyond the pitch. MLS Season Pass, which is Apple’s exclusive broadcasting channel for American soccer matches, had nearly a 1700% growth in subscriptions on the first day that Messi played for Inter Miami. Just two months after joining the MLS, Messi had been declared the MLS’s top-selling jersey in the entire calendar year, with eager fans joining the presale queue to get their hands on the resoundingly hot commodity. Inter Miami ticket prices have followed suit, with rapid increases in price for both home and away games. For home games, the average price increased from approximately $150 to over $850 after Messi’s arrival, an increase of almost 500%. It seems to be the hottest ticket in town since LeBron’s days with the Miami Heat. Likewise, for road games, the Messi effect is even more pronounced; average ticket prices have increased by over 1000% since his addition; fans nationwide are willing to dig deep into their pockets in order to witness greatness. Off the field, Messi’s magnetic presence has acted like a beacon, drawing an unparalleled global spotlight to Inter Miami.
Messi Mania - Very Much Legitimate
In conclusion, Lionel Messi’s arrival in Miami this summer not only dramatically enhanced the play of Inter Miami, but the seismic event also revolutionized the market for Major League Soccer. While Messi is quite heavily compensated compared to other athletes in MLS (and other professional sports leagues nationwide), it seems that the Messi Mania is legitimate. His play on the field demonstrates his superstardom, which has quickly translated into immediate team success for Inter Miami. Moreover, beyond the pitch, Messi has catalyzed a wave of worldwide interest in American soccer, the city of Miami, and his hot-selling pink #10 jersey. With the next World Cup being hosted in the United States in 2026, expect American soccer interest and fanaticism to continue to rise as more Americans begin to appreciate the world’s most popular sport. As Messi’s journey with Inter Miami continues, his aura and legacy, both immeasurable and statistically quantifiable, will continue to reverberate within the American soccer scene, transcending the game itself and revitalizing a culture of fútbol.